The Arab Spring that prompted the ouster of authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya also led to the rise of Islamists who are bent on creating Islamic states that adhere to Shariah law — and that fate could await Syria after dictator Bashar Assad falls. The democratically elected governments of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya are either led or beset by Islamists.
Libyan President Mohammed Magerief, leader of the General National Congress, is at risk of being overthrown by the Islamist extremists. Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki faces a similar challenge from radical Salafists — members of a fundamentalist Islamic sect. Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood is pressing to create an Islamic state ruled under Shariah law. Long outlawed in Syria, the Brotherhood’s fundamentalist movement now has established an organized presence in the Mideast country. Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi had warned the world that Libya risked becoming a base for al Qaeda if he were ousted. After he was captured and killed by Islamist militants, most of the Warfalla tribal clan, living in Sirte, also were butchered.
In Syria, Mr. Assad’s Alawite tribal clan has similar fears of being butchered if he is ousted. In the aftermath of the raging civil war, many innocent people will be killed just for belonging to the wrong tribe. Additional casualties will include Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds all fighting for their “piece of the turf.” Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Ansar al-Sharia, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Jabhat al Nusra Islamist are among the militants fighting in Syria. The U.S. has designated all of those groups as terrorist organizations.
The Syrian opposition groups say they wanted change, which we interpret as our form of democracy — a cliche in that part of the world. Mr. Assad’s ouster will not bring the democratic outcome the U.S. envisions — and the Arabian Peninsula will not become more peaceful. Bloodshed will continue in Syria, since achieving democracy in a tribal society will be very difficult.
However, a diplomatic solution may have a chance of succeeding, if all the tribal and religious factions can be brought to the negotiating table. If not, the fear is the fighting will continue to escalate, with disparate ethnic factions wanting to partition the country — a last resort to satisfy their quest for independence. Unifying Syria under one leader, amid such a diverse religious, ethnic and cultural mix, will be a challenge. Russia and the United States have agreed to convene an international conference — in accordance with the Geneva Communique approved by the U.N. Security Council — aimed at ending the civil war in Syria.
The two superpowers want to seek a political solution to Syria’s conflict, establish an interim government to include members of the current regime and “acceptable” opposition members. Such a transition would lead to elections to replace the Assad regime. Secretary of State John F. Kerry has cautioned: “The alternative is that Syria heads closer to the abyss, if not over the abyss and into chaos [with] even more violence.” The proposed inclusive peace conference may be the best alternative to an escalating conflict — even with an imperfect outcome — and repeating the chaotic situation in Libya.
This article was originally published in The Washington Times.